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Westlake tamalero shot to death

March 01, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez

Nobody knew the tamalero's name but, as if on cue, his call greeted the residents of South Witmer Street each morning.

"Tamales, champurrado! Tamales, champurrado!"

Instantly, entire families -- children, grandmothers and teenagers -- descended from apartment buildings, wrinkled dollar bills in hand, to line up in front of Cosme Gonzalez's old white-and-green station wagon to buy the vendor's pork, chicken and beef tamales and his warm drinks, called champurrado.

Some days, festive cumbias drifted from his car radio, and neighbors of the Westlake neighborhood laughed as he danced on the sidewalk.

In a neighborhood where street vendors vie daily for loyal customers, he was the one people waited for.

On Friday morning, Gloria Delao listened for his tamale call as she got ready for a doctor's appointment, but instead she heard a series of gun blasts. The power of the sound prompted the 80-year-old to heave her body against her bedroom wall in fear. A bullet tore through her bedroom, and when she peered out the window, she saw Gonzalez on his hands and knees, bloody, crying for help.

In what police are calling an attempted robbery, a man in his 20s approached the 46-year-old Gonzalez about 9:30 a.m. and demanded money. When Gonzalez refused, the man fatally shot him in the chest, police said.

The gunman was seen running west between buildings after the shooting.

"Everybody knew him," Los Angeles Police Det. Jeff Cortina said of Gonzalez. "He was an integral, complete part of the community."

For more than two decades, the native of Acapulco had traipsed up and down surrounding blocks -- past murals of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, past poinsettia bushes, past other vendors hawking corn and pillows and fruit.

Police declined to say where Gonzalez lived, but said he had a wife of 10 years and a son, 9, and two daughters, 5 and 3. Often, his brother joined him, selling tamales up the street out of a red car. The transactions were quick, with people hardly stopping to ask Gonzalez questions about his life or family, but "so many people are going to miss him here," Delao said.

On Saturday, for the first time, the neighborhood wistfully went without the tamalero's corn-husked concoctions so many had enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

People paused at the bottom of the red steps where Gonzalez was shot, lighting candles in his memory. Others stepped out on their balconies to look down, as news cameras came and went.

Not far away, a group of teenagers, many who had grown up eating the vendor's tamales, waited to celebrate a quinceanera in suits and bright yellow dresses.

"This morning as I was watching TV, I thought to myself, 'He should be coming soon,' " Delao said, looking onto the makeshift memorial from her apartment's marble steps.

"Then I remembered. He's not coming anymore."

The friendly man with his signature thin mustache started his daily rounds at Gratts Elementary on South Lucas Avenue, where parents flocked to his steamy pots to buy breakfast for their children. Emma Lugo, 38, was usually in line to buy his $2 tamales for her son Edward.

"When we didn't have time to make breakfast at home, he would step in and save us," Lugo said.

After children streamed into class, Gonzalez would travel west to Columbia Avenue and Witmer. Three times a day -- morning, noon and night -- he shouted his sales pitch. If you could not afford a tamale, the vendor gave it to you.

"Not just one, but two," said David Martinez, 43. "That's how good of a guy he was."

Some, like Marta Jimenez and her children, waited anxiously for his arrival, peeking out apartment windows.

"When I saw him, I would tell my husband, 'Hurry, hurry! The tamalero's there,' " said Jimenez, 40. "Or I would run down in my pajamas and catch him."

On Saturday morning Jimenez's teenage children, who had eaten Gonzalez's tamales nearly all their lives, could not understand why someone would hurt the vendor.

"I didn't know what to do," Jimenez said.

"I took them to McDonald's to make them feel better, but it wasn't the same."

--

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

Anyone with information regarding the shooting of Cosme Gonzalez is asked to contact Rampart Division homicide Dets. Jeff Cortina or John Motto at (213) 484-3650. After hours or on weekends, call 877-LAPD-24-7 (527-3247). Tipsters also may anonymously submit information on the LAPD website, www.lapdonline.org.

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